I was born in upstate New York, but I grew up in northern New Jersey, where my parents moved when I was four. For most of that time we lived in Packanack Lake, a suburb about twenty miles northwest of Manhattan. The lake itself had been created in the 1930s as part of a planned resort community, but over the years the log cabins that originally dotted the lakeshore came to be surrounded by more and more upscale homes, and much of the rural character of the area had been lost. Still, I enjoyed exploring the marginal landscapes that remained: building dams in the streams running through a new subdivision, playing hide-and-seek in the chicken coops of a farm slated for demolition, and catching sunnies, bass, and the occasional painted turtle below the drainage pipes that fed the dammed-up lake. I think that's why I've always been fascinated by the way places change over time, and by the stories we tell ourselves about how those changes came about.
I also read a lot as a kid, and as I grew I was drawn more and more to writing that helped me understand that environment and my place within it. I especially loved the short stories of John Cheever and Raymond Carver, which seemed to capture the experience of suburban life in all its complexity. But I was also fascinated by how those stories worked: how sentences were put together, how paragraphs were structured, and how whole worlds could be created through the right combination of words on the page. In high school I tried my hand at journalism, editing the school newspaper and yearbook, and as an undergraduate at Georgetown I worked as a copyeditor, a speechwriter, and the production editor of a magazine on Capitol Hill. It wasn't until midway through college, however, that I realized I could combine my interests in literature and writing with my interests in landscape and place, thanks to my discovery of the burgeoning genre of American nature writing.
After devoting much of my senior year to an independent study of nature writing, I attended graduate school in English at the University of Virginia, where I read widely in American literature and environmental studies, served as the first Sara Shallenberger Brown Fellow in Environmental Literature at Brown College, and spent many hours exploring the Blue Ridge mountains and Shenandoah Valley west of Charlottesville. I eventually co-edited an anthology of nature writing from that region, curated a related exhibition, and helped scholars from around the world develop the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. Since I joined the University of Minnesota in 1998, I have published a critical edition of a lost work of nature writing, a study of the role American nature writers played in the environmental movement, a co-edited collection of ecocritical scholarship, and a compilation of nature writing from the state of Minnesota. I have also taught and advised many students in a wide range of fields related to the environmental humanities, creative nonfiction, and sustainability studies.
Most recently, I've become interested in how nonfiction writing has helped to transform environmentalism into something more like sustainability, particularly through the subject of food. Now that I'm a husband and a father, I spend a lot of time thinking about the food my family eats—so we can make healthy choices for ourselves, certainly, but also so we can respect the farmers who grow our food and sustain the environments in which that food is grown. That so many of us care about this subject today is due in part to a particular set of literary and cultural texts that have been addressing these issues since World War II. In examining how and why these texts have changed our public discourse about food, I also hope to explore the strengths and weaknesses of place-based writing and activism in an increasingly globalized world. In the process, I also hope to understand how places such as Packanack—whose name is said to mean "land made clear for cultivation"—came to lose almost all contact with the soil.